Sport

Stand and deliver: Fulham build on strong start to top-flight season

Craven Cottage’s Riverside Stand is some way off completion, the club’s official line being that it will be fully operational for the 2023-24 season, but it was for home fixtures such as Sunday’s against Manchester United that it was renovated.

The structure’s towering exoskeleton has been a feature of the Thames in south-west London since 2019. What the club’s owner, Shahid Khan, described, rather grandiosely, as a “real gamechanger for Fulham Football Club, our neighbourhood, and all of London” has become dotted with fans. Capacity has climbed close to 25,000. Supporters in the lower tier of the new stand have been joined by some in the wings of the upper tier, before that anticipated full launch. That many are paying £100 for the privilege of sitting there, OAPs paying full price, supporters under 17 at £70, amid a cost-of-living crisis caused unwelcome headlines.

The plan is that the extra revenue from corporate entertainment and that pricy matchday experience can help Fulham compete as a Premier League club, the Riverside plan being similar to the renovation of Anfield’s main stand that helped revive Liverpool’s bottom line. And while Khan’s ambitions do not stretch to the Olympian heights his Fenway Sports Group compatriots have reached before recently deciding to cash out at least a minor stake, the success of the venture relies on Fulham being in the Premier League.

So far, so good this season. Far ahead of expectations, in fact. It has been clear since the opening match of the club’s latest return to the top echelon, a 2-2 draw with Liverpool that had Jürgen Klopp’s men reeling in discomfort, that this season could be different. “We must not be too concerned about being called a ‘yo-yo’ club,” said Marco Silva in April. His team have played as if the anxiety of a relegation battle is not remotely their problem.

Fulham are ninth, behind Liverpool only on goal difference, and the fruits of Silva’s attacking, high-pressing approach are clear. The team might have been higher had Jordan Pickford not put up an excellent goalkeeping display in snatching a goalless draw for Everton a fortnight ago. Or had Darren England, the referee last weekend, not indulged Kevin De Bruyne’s theatrics and awarded a penalty after Antonee Robinson’s late challenge at Manchester City.

The champions were reeling at the Etihad, level at 1-1 with João Cancelo having been dismissed, and Pep Guardiola was forced to smash the emergency glass in bringing on Erling Haaland. Perhaps most tellingly, for those who choose to put Fulham’s mid-table position down to the goals of Aleksandar Mitrovic, the Serbian talisman had not made the trip to Manchester.

Clearly, his 10 goals have been hugely helpful; Silva has keyed into Mitrovic’s talents in the Premier League in a fashion his managers at Newcastle never could and Silva’s predecessor, Scott Parker, failed to during the 2020-21 relegation season. The supporting cast has played a huge part, too, without Fabio Carvalho, the young star of last season’s promotion campaign who was able to leave for a £5m tribunal fee to Liverpool.

Andreas Pereira has been a revelation, particularly to those who recall him as a diligent yet scratchy Manchester United player, adding genuine quality as an attacking midfielder. João Palhinha, a late developer in Portuguese football, is an adroit, aggressive, high-end holding player. Willian, whose belated arrival in the transfer window was greeted with bemusement, has shown off the talents that won hearts at Chelsea but little of the flakiness that made him an Arsenal bust.

“He is enjoying his football again,” said Silva of his veteran Brazilian. Much the same goes for a raft of players who struggled in Fulham’s recent doomed Premier League seasons. Harrison Reed’s zest in midfield makes him a real Cottage favourite. Until rupturing an achilles last week, Neeskens Kebano, with the club since 2016, had embodied Fulham’s adventure with his speed down the flanks. Tim Ream, at 35, and off to the World Cup with the United States, has been assured in central defence, ever the leader. Fans are enjoying life in the Premier League the most since the Roy Hodgson era ended after reaching the 2010 Europa League final.

Silva has had much to prove. After the draw with Everton, he reminded those journalists from Merseyside that his former club has not finished higher since than the eighth place in 2018-19 he delivered in his sole full season. A decent working relationship with Khan, and Khan’s son Tony, director of football operations, comes in contrast to the dysfunction he found at Goodison Park.

Beyond that Riverside Stand development, Craven Cottage retains its genteel, Tommy Trinder-tinged persona. The painted beams in the Archibald Leitch-designed Johnny Haynes Stand transport back to the analogue world of the 1960s but a different future beckons within Khan’s grand plans. Silva’s team embracing modernity with progressive, entertaining football is playing a full part in achieving that vision.